by Jean-Michel CORHAY
The International Year for the World's Indigenous Peoples will
be the opportunity to draw the international community's attention to one of the
most neglected and vulnerable set of people on the planet. So said Antoine
Blanca, the UN coordinator for this Year 1993.
Every UN institution is anxious to reassess and improve the
programmes and activities put on for indigenous peoples to make sure that the
Year goes down in their history and particularly in the history of their fight
for survival and recognition of their rights. The idea, the UN General Assembly
announced, is to boost international cooperation to solve the problems which the
indigenous communities have to face with such things as human rights,
development, the environment, education and health. An extensive campaign will
be run to alert the public and to attract the international community's
attention and inform it about indigenous peoples' problems and
concerns-especially as regards their traditional concepts of land ownership,
resources and the sort of development they want for future generations.
A forum will be provided for indigenous peoples to pass on their
messages and ensure that others understand their cultures and ways of life
better. 'The UN is more and more inclined to recognise the validity of the
global approach which these peoples want and which links up development and
environmental issues, peace and human rights and more. The International Year
must be more than a cascade of meaningless words. It must lead to proper
progress,' is how EricaIrene A. Daes, chair and spokeswoman of the working party
on indigenous peoples, put it.
Indigenous peoples are the descendants of the original
inhabitants of many countries and their cultures, religions and methods of
economic and social organisation differ widely. There are 300 million of them in
the world today, in more than 70 countries (see map). There are the Amerindians,
the Inuits and the Aleutians of the polar regions, there are the Saamis (Lapps)
of Northern Europe, the Aborigines of Australia and the Maoris of New Zealand.
More than 60% of the population of Bolivia and about half the population of
Guatemala and Peru are indigenous and China and India have an indigenous and
tribal population of more than 150 million between them. In the 10
million-strong population of Myanmar (Burma), there are at least 5000 groups
which stand apart by virtue of language, culture or geographical situation. Some
are hunters and gatherers and some live in the towns and are fully involved in
the culture of their country, but they all have a strong feeling of belonging to
a distinct culture with a special relationship with the land.
The indigenous peoples-they may be called autochthones, Indians,
aboriginals, natives or original inhabitants- have different cultural, ethnic
and religious backgrounds, but face identical problems despite this diversity.
Through the effects of colonialism, the propagation of non-indigenous religions,
the inexorable advance of (above all, industrial) development and the effects of
modernisation more generally, the traditional cultures of indigenous groups have
been eroded. Either their land has been confiscated or, even today, economic
pressure forces them to give it up. So these people are among the world's most
underprivileged groups, some of them threatened with extinction. Over the past
decade or two, some indigenous groups have indeed fallen victim to the most
destructive side of development-projects to build dams, irrigation systems and
roads, mining and other ecologically damaging operations. Driven from their
ancestral lands, cut off from their traditional way of life and forced to
integrate with the dominant national societies, they have been subjected to
discrimination, marginalisation or alienation ever since. For example,
relentless felling of the tropical rainforests is a direct threat to the very
existence of the 50 million-strong indigenous population which lives in them.
These peoples are directly concerned by a changing or
deteriorating environment and they also have a crucial part to play in
protecting it. For centuries, in fact, they have been managing and making
rational use of land in the regions in which they live. Sales of medicines
derived from traditional plants which they have discovered, processed and handed
down from generation to generation are worth more than $43 billion annually. Of
course, the pharmaceutical companies capitalise on their know-how, but rarely
pass on a share of the profits.
Ironically enough, critical issues, such as global warming,
deforestation, desertification and the holes in the ozone layer, are now at the
top of the international agenda and the indigenous peoples of the world, long
considered too primitive to adapt to the modern world and for centuries the
victims of land confiscation, maltreatment and genocide, are beginning to look
like environmental wizards.
The preparatory technical conference in Santiago (Chile) in May
1992 recognised the fact that many of the planet's most vulnerable ecosystems
were in the traditional lands of the indigenous peoples 'who have successfully
developed lasting, ecological methods of managing resources and using the land'.
Principle 22 of the Declaration of the UN Conference on the
Environment and Development, held in Rio the month after, said that indigenous
populations and communities had a vital part to play in environmental management
and development because of their understanding of the environment and their
traditional practices. It went on to say that states should recognise their
identity, their culture and their interests, give every support and enable them
to take an effective part in achieving self-sustaining development.
Nonetheless, there is still a huge gap between the aims laid
down at Rio and the lot of the indigenous peoples. So, throughout the UN's
International Year of the World's Indigenous Peoples, these aims should be
re-assessed and even better defined and, under the banner of 'new partnership',
all efforts should focus on the following four things.
-Involvement of indigenous peoples in the planning,
implementation and evaluation of schemes affecting their living conditions and
future. This should be done through meetings and consultations with indigenous
-Projects designed for indigenous peoples. Consultations between
indigenous communities and governments and between indigenous peoples and the
relevant UN organisations will be the opportunity to promote such projects,
which will receive aid from the UN's newly created voluntary contribution fund
for the International Year for the World's Indigenous Peoples.
-Knowledge of the laws which protect the rights of indigenous
peoples. This means ensuring that the interested parties know more about: (1)
ILO Convention No 169 ( 1989), which promotes consultation between governments
and their indigenous peoples and tribes, with particular reference to collective
and individual rights of ownership of land and natural resources in the areas
traditionally inhabited by these people; (2) the draft declaration on the rights
of indigenous peoples on which the working party on indigenous populations, the
International Labour Organisation and other competent international legislative
bodies are currently collaborating. In particular, this declaration should
recognise that indigenous peoples have the right to self-determination, of which
the right to autonomy is an integral part, and proclaim that they have a right
to protection against genocide, to keep and develop their distinct ethnic and
cultural identity, use their own languages, own and do what they like with their
traditional lands and territories, receive compensation for confiscated land, be
consulted about development projects affecting them, be autonomous in their
internal and local affairs and take part, without discrimination and on an equal
footing with all the other citizens, in the political, economic, social and
cultural life of the state.
Where indigenous people